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Queens of Jerusalem: The Women Who Dared to Rule

History shows female absolute monarchs are comparatively rare.

The further back one goes in European history, the rarer they become. Since they are so rare, female rulers tend to be memorable. Most of us know about monarchs such as Elizabeth I, Catherine the Great and the legendary Cleopatra. But they are a select few. This is a ground-breaking academic work on a rarely researched phenomenon: female monarchs – specifically queens-regnant – in the medieval period. Still rarer is the fact that it examines the female rulers in the crusader states of the Middle East from the twelfth century.

Queens of Jerusalem by Katherine Pangonis, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 2021.

Ostensibly, a work on the forgotten rulers of long-vanished kingdoms nine centuries ago might not seem all that appealing to the contemporary reader. However, it covers much new ground in examining a period and personalities who have long been neglected by conventional academics and even their own contemporaries. Mediaeval chroniclers of history were all male and devoted their histories almost exclusively to male rulers. Women, even queens regnant, tended to be given short shrift or even overlooked altogether. This seminal work goes some way to redressing this historical bias.

It is fascinating look at a time and place when regal women were accorded virtually equal status as rulers in a political environment that was constantly threatened by powerful enemies. While they could not physically lead their subjects into battle (this was three centuries before the legendary Joan of Arc!) they were often accorded equal status with their spouses and co-rulers. It details the politics, rivalries and court intrigues around the choice of male consorts for these royal women and the political consequences, both positive and negative, of these choices.

Clearly, these queens and princesses were different from their more passive and largely invisible contemporaries in mainland Europe. These female rulers were not merely decorative wallflowers but women who frequently played an active role in the politics of their day. This fact alone makes them worthy of such a study. However, the importance of this work goes beyond mere novelty value for it acquaints the reader with historical characters largely unknown to the average reader. As academic research, it provides a more balanced view of this period by compensating for the distortions, biases and oversights of previous chronicles and historians.

By examining this part of medieval history from a feminist perspective, it provides a slightly more accurate view of the past and compensates for the failings and omissions of earlier historians.